It was hard to hold against Davis, too. Even a straight arrow like Tex Schramm, former president of the Cowboys, confesses to a certain affection for the miscreant. "I don't put him in the category of being dishonest, but he will tread as close to the line as he cam" Schramm says. All the same, he adds, he enjoys the heck out of Davis.
But Davis steadily depleted that reservoir of good will as he engaged owners in lawsuits. Davis is held responsible for having dragged the late Steeler owner Art Rooney, most beloved of NFL men, through court in 1977. But of course Davis was going to stand by his player, George Atkinson, who had been branded part of a "criminal element" by Steeler coach Chuck Noll. That marked the beginning of Davis's exile; Rozelle removed him from the competition committee.
As bitter as it got when Davis sued the NFL after the other owners tried to prevent him from moving his franchise, the final straw seems to have been his testimony on behalf of the USFL in the 1986 trial of that league's antitrust suit against the NFL. "Unforgivable," sniffs Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Hugh Culverhouse.
But the NFL is now polarized, with new owners—guys who made their millions in oil, electric shavers and shopping centers—expecting sophisticated marketing ideas to go with their franchises. The old guard underestimated the division and found that they couldn't name a commissioner. Suddenly both sides found something to like about Al Davis.
Steeler president Dan Rooney, a "football man," notes Davis's protection of tradition. "I don't go for the genius stuff," he says, "but he's a bright guy, knows football and can grasp the issues. He's not the devil he has made himself out to be."
Rooney was reminded of this when, after his father's funeral last year, Davis sat down with some of Dan Rooney's sons and nephews and talked football and Art Rooney for two hours. "I thought it was wonderful," Dan says.
And the new owners like Davis's free thinking. Now, teams move at will—the Colts and Cardinals changed cities under the NFL's modified rules. Davis's idea that a city might owe a franchise for its benefit to the community—an idea that has led to an auction, with Irwindale, Sacramento, Oakland and even Los Angeles bidding for a team—has also attracted attention. "I like that," says Jerry Jones, the new man in Dallas.
Cities, mindful of an owner's short attention span, are now scrambling to please teams. After the Oilers threatened to move to Jacksonville, Houston found $40 million for stadium improvements all on its own. Team owners are not unmindful that the Cardinals struck gold when they moved to Phoenix. And now Oakland, which has had trouble funding its school system, is putting up about $50 million for football's potential benefit to the community. In other words, the ultimate beneficiaries of Davis's efforts to change the NFL's rules have been the owners themselves. Davis, meanwhile, still doesn't have the type of stadium for which he moved to L.A. in the first place.
Time passes, doesn't it? Schramm says of Davis, "I don't think he's had a happy 10 years. He's always talking about the one thing he can't control, death, and he probably has the feeling life is so short. Maybe he wishes he could have changed the last 10 years.... Maybe he's tired, he'd like to do football instead of all that other stuff."
Davis bought into the Raiders for $18,500 and has seen that stake grow considerably. He now owns close to 30% of the team, which was valued at $80 million two years ago, before the bidding for franchises got intense. Davis once asked Jimmy the Greek what passes for rich these days. "I told him a guy had to have better than $20 million, and he said, 'Just 20?' He's got a great sense of humor."